"Randall," said Carson, sitting next to him on the park bench. "I need your help."
Randall Thrayn stopped playing his flute. "You need no man's help but your own," he said.
"Right," said Carson, after a beat. "I mean I seek the mutually empowering benefaction of a fair transaction between equals."
"You're clever with words, Carson," said Randall Thrayn. "If you would apply that intelligence to something genuinely constructive, think how much you could accomplish."
"Maybe I could stop villains from enslaving our city," said Carson. "Whatever else we may disagree on, Randall, this is my home as much as yours."
"Villains?" Randall frowned and put the flute down. "More trouble from Rimbor, then?"
"Yeah. You mobilized the citizenry against the thugs and gang members." Carson left aside for now the fact that Randall's citizen militia hadn't been able to do jack shit about the Scorpion's men assassinating the Racents. "Will you mobilize them against the drug pushers?"
"Selling," said Randall. "Not forcing to buy. I do not interfere with commerce." He picked his flute back up.
"You interfered with mine." Randall looked up, frowning. "I'm not asking you to pass a law, Thrayn. I just want you to go out there and say something like ‘Doing drugs makes you a less productive member of society and wastes your potential and you shouldn't do it.' You can save lives, you can make New Lianth more constructive. You don't have to ban it. All I'm asking you to do is tell the people it's anti-Objectivist."
"It's not anti-Objectivist," said Randall Thrayn.
Carson looked at the unofficial leader of the city stupidly for a few moments. He'd assumed Thrayn had been bullshitting at some level, especially after the autocratic measure of disbanding the merchants' guild. But now he realized the man must have talked himself somehow into believing it was the lesser of two interferences. Randall Thrayn honest-to-God believed in this crap, enough to let children die over it. Carson switched tracks and struggled for a religious argument. "It is," he insisted, bringing all his persuasive ability to bear. "Giving someone a substance that overrides their conscious control, their ability to make their own decisions--it's like mind control. It's being beholden to something. That's not what we're about--is it?"
"No," Randall agreed. "Indulging in anything to the point of obsession corrodes the self. I will caution the people against the overuse of such drugs." He started playing again, a serene look on his face as if the conversation was not only over, but he'd agreed to give Carson what he wanted.
"Any use is overuse," Carson persisted. Randall's eyes frowned at him over the flute. "It's addictive, Randall. Once you take it, you can't stop. That's why it's all wrong for this city."
Randall put the flute down. "Carson," he said, "I trust the people. To forbid them to do something--even to exhort them not to do something--just because some people do it irresponsibly is the greatest of insults to their autonomy. I would rather have a thousand citizens who are their own men by their own choice than ten thousand who are nominally free because I have hidden them from bad decisions." Carson stared. "Intemperance is immoral. I agree with you. It is a weakness that prevents one from achieving his true potential. But I will not tell any man not to take drugs or drink or gamble or have sex or play the flute to any degree he can handle responsibly. Those who cannot resist the temptation to abuse their desires are those our society is better off without."
He put the flute to his lips and did not look at Carson again.
The Mistral pored over Khyrisse's almanac with interest. During the first Celtic conquests, it had been Diaria, Liratyn, Shikintu, and Kyoko-Ra that held out. This time Diaria, Shikintu, and Kyoko-Ra had already submitted, and Liratyn was destroyed. The primary holdouts were Dalencia, Nylevia, and Talaria, countries major enough that if they had not yet acceded to Queen Aithne's empire it meant they were resisting it.
Princess Aithne, really. She had pledged herself to the elven matriarch and her kingdom. That was okay, though; Aithne was young, and by the time she was ready to succeed the throne he would have an empire waiting for her. The Mistral was very patient. Last time it had taken centuries to conquer Ataniel,
and his queens had been imprisoned before the job was even complete.
So it seemed the Mistral's logical first step was the small countries, the ones developed enough to have leaders worth corrupting to Aithne's service but not powerful enough to have organized resistance to it. Margonal. Sturtevant. Saliphon, Peteser, Tharr. Dascold City. Rimbor. Malachi. New Gila was an unknown entity, and the Mistral would have careful research to do before he moved on that.
"We are needed," Aithne's imperious Gaelic interrupted his machinations. "My lady faces a... quandary."
Kingfisher, the young witch had decided, was a man. She had assumed he was a woman when he had accompanied the females of the clan to the pub that time, but perhaps he was a bodyguard or even a eunuch and this was his job. He was feminine-looking by Celtic standards, but then, so was Vas. And though he was clearly a peripheral member of the Rat Pack, lower-ranking than either the powerful females or males, the group accepted his martial instruction without complaint. Aithne guessed he was a man-at-arms. He was standing now in a position of guarding over a blonde girl who struck Aithne as an apprentice sorceress. Her
name was Dee, and Khyrisse didn't seem to like her very much.
"We can't just invade Tobrinel to rescue him, Khyrisse," Lora Paris was saying in a quiet voice.
"I don't see why not," the sorceress rejoindered coldly. "They invaded New Trade to capture him."
Chief Averdale cleared her throat. "Well, technically," she said, "if what Miss Rapkin says is accurate, they've committed no crime. The man left New Trade protection voluntarily."
"They're an important part of our coalition," Lora reminded.
"But we can't just let Ariath get away with this!" said Vas, aghast.
"She's going to keep doing things like this, you know," sighed Dee. "There's no getting through to her. All my life I've tried to avoid opposing her directly, but now that I've seen what a turn things have taken for the worse since she returned..." She brushed away a tear. "Something will have to be done."
"Piece o' cake," the Mistral spoke up, leaning back in his chair. "What we need to do is drive a wedge between bitchy-babe and her boss-lady. Convince her matriarch Ariath's betraying her and she'll kick her out on her own. Never even know we're behind it." Everyone turned around to look at him, surprised. "No Omeria, no support structure for our assassin friend. It also, I might add, softens up the power cadre of Tobrinel a little."
"Wow," said Dee, her eyes widening. "That's really sneaky! I could never have thought of something like that." Khyrisse, Vas, and Val were all giving her dirty looks. She looked uncomfortable, and hurried on. "But... I mean, don't get me wrong, I think it's a great idea. D--Ariath, wasn't really that bad until she fell in with Omeria and that crowd. Maybe if they rejected her, she'd wake up and take a look at her life. I'd rather do that than kill her. I mean, she's still my sister, even after everything she's done to me." Dee paused. "But how is this going to help Mordecai?"
"It isn't," shrugged the Mistral. "Omelet, eggs, yada yada. It'll stop her from doing anyone else the nasty."
"He was under my protection," said Khyrisse. "His only mistake was trusting Ariath. I won't let anyone else suffer for her." Her face was set. "We're getting him out of there one way or another."
"I'd take a rescue team in," Vas offered.
"That's your vendetta talking, dear," sighed Val.
Vas glared at her. "Excuse me, sister mine, but I'm hardly a child, and I think I know the tug of a blood oath from a situation in which my skills could be of use, thankyouverymuch!"
"I will go also to rescue the citizen of my matriarch," said Aithne, saluting. "If they are catch us and we cannot escape, you can deny you sent us there and we will take blame."
"Cool," said the Mistral. "I'll hitch a ride with my mistress, and then peel off to do my hatchet job on bitchy-babe's friendship with the Duke." Khyrisse hesitated. "Surely you concede she deserves it."
Losing The Battle, Winning The War
The boardwalk had come alive in the falling night.
Long wicker torches cast orange shadows in the water as athletes, mostly men and mostly some stage of drunk, formed flushed and excited circles around contest after contest. Some were as formal as martial arts competitions you could only enter if you were ranked (Perry was). Others were as impromptu as two men trading shots of whiskey and taking turns punching each other in the stomach until one of them fell.
The general level of competition was reinforcing Ebreth's sense that he was below the median level here athletically, though he and Jack had both held their own in a game that involved pegging targets with a handball and the nearly five feet Ebreth was able to jump straight up in the air from a standing start had proved to be the most of anyone currently in Strive. This pleased Ebreth and won him a bottle of sherry, which he and Jack were currently sampling as they watched Perry freestyle wrestle with a burly Riklander. Ebreth's chest was still rising and falling a bit hard from the high jumping, and there was a thin sheen of sweat on his dark skin. Bane was half-ascended. The sherry was a lot better than the sparkling wine at dinner.
Perry put his right foot down outside the chalk circle, and so even though he'd been fighting impressively he was out. He looked disappointed, but he shook his opponent's hand in a sporting way and took his towel from Jack. Perry was one of the few men on the boardwalk still wearing a shirt, probably because he was so hairy anyway. "What unfortunate luck!" said the bugbear, still in the same smooth, smiling voice. "Well, maybe one of you will fare better. Who's next, mates?" He clapped Jack and Ebreth on the shoulders.
Ebreth hadn't been going to volunteer for this one, but he guessed he'd give it a shot.
The Riklander paused for a lot of water and a swig of clear liquor but beckoned Ebreth on before the five minutes' rest he was allotted were over. Ebreth approached him loosely, a slight crouch in his gait. From the fight with Perry, he was expecting the Riklander to come out grappling, and he didn't disappoint, making a sudden lunge for Ebreth's upper arm. Ebreth windmilled it out of the way and lashed him in the chest with a fierce and clearly unexpected kick. The guy barely staggered. Okay, I'm in deep shit here, Ebreth had time to think, ducking out of the way of the Riklander's open-handed punch just enough to render it a glancing blow. Perry, he was realizing belatedly, was apparently very much stronger than Ebreth, and this opponent more out of his league than watching the first match had led him to believe.
He gave the Riklander a juke with his shoulder and went for his knee with the heel of his boot as the wrestler's momentum carried him past him, but he missed a bit low, and the Riklander not only didn't go down, he got Ebreth's right arm in a twist. He could feel the more powerful man preparing to throw him and
went the other way on him, his legs twisting beneath him as he torqued his body behind the Riklander's. At the last second he diverted the diagonal chop of his left hand that would have broken the man's neck, and it stung into the back of his head instead. Fuck, Tor, are you trying to kill--
The moment of distraction was more than enough for the clearly superior wrestler, who dragged him over his shoulder by the arm lock. Ebreth had time to twist his body in midair like a cat to keep his jammed arm from snapping, and then the Riklander's elbow smashed into his mouth and he hit the boardwalk hard.
Ebreth got to his forearm. His mouth was bleeding. He was over the chalk line.
"You won't last five minutes in the Running," the Riklander threw over his shoulder with some derision, going for his water bottle.
"Luckily, I run better than I wrestle," Ebreth laughed as he sat up.
The Riklander turned his head and stared at him for a few moments in the moonlight, and then he laughed back and gave him a hand up. "The heart of a warrior's worth more than the arm of one," he quoted. Ebreth didn't really know what to say to that, or why the Riklander was so impressed by a sense of humor, but it was all right with him. "Good match," he said.
Jack had to tell him his jaw was broken.
Ebreth pushed his chin into a more approximately correct position, blood smearing his hand. He would have liked to credit himself with stoicism, but he knew it was really just that his pain sensors were out of whack and he had trouble gauging these things. "There's a healing pavilion all the way at the end of the boardwalk," Perry directed, pointing it out to him. "Thanks," said Ebreth.
"Next?" said the Riklander.
"Well, Paris?" Perry smiled at his friend.
Ebreth quickened his pace. He didn't even want to know.
Deja Vu All Over Again
"Somehow," said Khyrisse, a little bitterly, "I don't think being rejected by Omeria would change her
attitude one bit. And it hardly seems like much of a punishment."
"Hey, throw her in the dungeon, torture her, knock yourself out," the Mistral shrugged. "We just need to nuke her diplomatic immunity before you can do anything else, is all."
"Uh, excuse me," said Dee, a little pale.
"No, I'm not going to torture her," sighed Khyrisse. "I just wish I could make her understand what she's done to people."
"Do I hear that," sighed Dee.
She sounded so much like Ari once had that Khyrisse had to fight not only the urge to throttle her but also the urge to give her shoulder a friendly squeeze. The latter pissed her off more. "Whatever," she said.
"If it'll help Mordecai, I'll go with you," Dee said slowly. "I'm only a first-level mage, but maybe I can make people think I'm my sister and sneak us into the prison or something."
Valende looked at Dee and then at Aithne and her pet demon, and came to the reluctant conclusion that the group needed a little more supervision than Vas was likely to provide. "Okay," she sighed. "We're not official members of the government; I suppose the amount of damage we could do to New Trade is minimal. I just hope to Corellon we don't get captured, because there'll be nothing you can do to retrieve us short of declaring war."
"If you get captured, I'll see what I can do about busting your asses out of there," the Mistral said.
"I think you are speaking something not enough respectfully," frowned Aithne.
"I could, like, go with you," Marty offered. "Cause I'm not part of any plots right now or anything."
"Marty, dear," Valende murmured tactfully, "your--unique skills--aren't really suited to this mission."
"Oh no, Miz Val, I don't have any unicorn skills. Like, no way on that, you know?"
Val wondered despite herself if that was supposed to mean the young paladin was or wasn't a virgin. "That's--nice, Marty," Vas bailed her out. "But we're going to need to be quiet and subtle this time."
"Dude," nodded Marty. "I'm, like, an apprentice Zen master."
"Marty..." said Val.
"And an assistant detective."
"Look..." said Vas.
"Plus," added Marty, "I can kill four vampires with a single blow from my Sword of Truth's Light."
They looked at each other. "That's topical in Tobrinel," Dee put in.
"This whole thing is such a mistake," sighed Val.
It was a windy, unusually chilly night in the Land of the Little Folk, and the pets clustered beneath a tree. Seeker and Melissa had fur, Duck his warm down, but poor little Peep's still-growing-in feathers were blown out by the winds, and she was cold. Babe, who of course could endure far colder temperatures without problem, nestled the little chick between his feet and belly to keep the young bird warm.
Babe's mind would not stray long from the plight of his people, be they emperors or kings, macaroni, magellenic, african or adelie. He hoped that he and his friends were up to the task of freeing them. It would not be easy to defeat the mighty Shalak, Babe knew, but he had to try. He knew all too well that every penguin dies, but not every penguin truly lives.
"Didn't Khyri tell you anything else?"
"No, not much," Karel said wryly. Her appearance told me a hell of a lot--but in connection with what is the question... He spared a moment to mentally inform whatever deities were left that the possibility of his sister having freaked out that badly over a sincere expression of devotion was Not Nice.
"Can't this thing go any faster?" Derek pulled his hair until it stuck out wildly in every direction.
"We're almost there." Karel glanced out the window of the Trade Carriage at the city they were nearing, its street lanterns beginning to flicker on in the approaching twilight. New Trade looked like an exotic piece of jewelry to him, draped across the mountain's shoulder: an asymmetrical pearl necklace, studded with garnet and emerald, laced with gold. "Khyri built this?" he asked dubiously.
"You expected her to leave buildings scattered everywhere?" said Derek, a momentary grin surfacing through his concern and confusion.
"I remember how she kept house, if you don't," her brother chuckled.
Khyrisse bent to pick up the scattered Scrabble pieces with a sigh. Sallie seemed to like the game well enough, but it was hard to keep her attention on it for very long. Usually, sooner or later, she'd forget what language they were playing in. "Aniu, look... Elven or Dalen, okay?" She placed tiles on the board, blatantly disregarding the rule about proper names. Sallie never remembered that one anyway. "L-A-E-L-I-S-S-A."
"Milady," Sennett said from the doorway, "the rest of your family is here. Shall I show them in?"
Khyrisse looked hard into her mother's face, hoping for some sign of excitement or recognition at the announcement Mad Sallie rummaged through the letter tiles, cheerfully oblivious. Khyrisse sighed. "Yes, Sennett, of course you shou--" Khyrisse stopped, looking down at the board. Proceeding messily from the first "A" in "LAELISSA," Sallie was rearranging an identical set of letters. Khyrisse's mouth twitched.
" ‘As Sallie'... very funny, Mom."
Mad Sallie laughed and applauded, for all the world as if she'd just done an unexpectedly clever trick.
Devil His Due
Carson Delaney watched helplessly as a passel of local kids smoked Cane on the street corner. The citizens of New Lianth passed them by without comment. He'd known this would happen, at some level. Said as much to Stump. That only made it worse somehow. Carson Delaney felt responsible, but he couldn't get anyone to listen to him. "They don't understand," came a voice from behind him. The shopkeeper turned with a frown to see a tall, thin man with his hair in a ponytail. "They don't know what this stuff can do," the man said. "They haven't seen it. And by the time they do, it'll be too late."
"You've got that right, buddy," said Carson. "You from Rimbor?"
"Montas," said the man. "And not the part the Parises frolic in, either, the part their poison peddling rots out. Nick," he introduced, extending a hand.
"Pleased to meet you. Whatever scheme you're about to hatch to keep this crap out of Lianth, count me in."
Carson sighed and rubbed his neck. "I don't know what to do," he admitted. "Randall Thrayn could stop it, but he won't." Carson was still bitter about this, but didn't want to get into it with a stranger. Randall was too popular, his un-rule too absolute. Carson couldn't afford to be heard speaking out against him. "Maybe... public education..."
Nick shook his head. "It won't work. They won't believe it till they see it, and by the time they do, the whole generation'll be lost. Cane kills slow, but it kills hard. And it's not a habit people can kick."
"Then we've got to show them what it can do somehow," muttered Carson, his manipulative wheels turning.
"Bring over some junkies from Rimbor, maybe, let ‘em see what can happen?" Nick offered.
Carson shook his head. "That's a good idea, Nick, but the people here... they won't buy that. They believe anyone who fails was either weak or wasn't trying. You show ‘em an addict, they'll rationalize him away as a personal failure. They don't understand addiction. They don't know it could happen to anyone."
"Damn," sighed Nick, and looked down the street. "If there was only..." He paused. "You know," he said, "I did see a drug fail once, in Reynard. Stuff called lirium. Ever heard of that?" Carson shook his head.
Hopped people up, real popular at parties for a while... but then a real bad batch got out, cut with rat poison
or something. A dozen people died. Lirium went out like yesterday's parachute pants."
"Huh," said Carson.
"What if," said Nick, "something like that happened here?"
Carson looked at Nick. "You're not suggesting..."
Nick sighed and shook his head. "No, no, you're right. I don't know what I'm thinking. I just get so frustrated sometimes... my brother died of this shit. There's got to be some way to get this through their thick skulls." He paused. "So what are we going to do?"
"I don't... know," Carson admitted.
"Listen." Nick pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled on it. "I'm staying at the Atlas Inn. You think of anything, you look me up." He put his address into Carson's hand.
Carson kept it. He was glad of a potential ally; New Lianth at large seemed frighteningly deaf to his warnings.
But all that night, he tossed restlessly in his dreams.
And across town in the Atlas Inn, Mephisto smiled at himself in the mirror. "That's the way she's supposed to go," he said.
Just Out Of Reach
Most of the rest of Strive had turned in for the night. Jack didn't sleep, though, and Ebreth no more than three or four hours a night, and lying around their smallish inn room reading didn't seem particularly vacationish to either man, so they'd gone out on the Vadril to do some night fishing and finish Ebreth's bottle of sherry. The latter was going better than the former. Ebreth wondered if fish slept. It had never really occurred to him before. "So," he said, watching the water. "Brett."
"Yeah. What's the deal with her?"
Jack shrugged. "I told you, she and Perry used to hang out with my old group sometimes... I think she might have been a bard. She's one of those people who can do almost anything moderately well. She's very hard to flap. And she's a really nice person. It, uh, took a while for Cori to get used to her mannerisms, but she did. It was nice to have someone so cheerful around when things would start to get hairy."
"Cheerful," said Ebreth, thinking of the quiet sorrow he thought he'd caught a glimmer of from the corner of his eye.
Ebreth got a strike just then, and stood to reel it in.
"You--were kidding about her being a romantic subplot, right?"
"What?" said Ebreth. "Yes, of course."
"Okay, good," said Jack. He paused longer than he needed to. Ebreth landed the fish. It was a smallish trout, a good size for breakfast. It flopped frantically from the line. "So this, uh, isn't about the way she was looking at you when she left the Smoke and Mirrors, then, right?"
"I thought you were completely oblivious to things like that, Paris," frowned Ebreth.
"No," Jack admitted, "I'm just good at rationalizing them into total paralysis when they involve me."
"Hnhhh," said Ebreth, and unhooked the trout. It gasped and writhed in his wet hands. "Anyway, it wasn't that kind of a look," he said, after a few moments. "Not like she wanted me, like she wanted..." He
tapped the deck with his boot. "...Something else," he finished, vaguely. "Understanding. I don't know." He held the fish out over the rail and sent it back into the dark water. A flip of silver, and it was gone. "I don't know what I'm talking about."
Khyrisse sighed heavily, letting herself lean a little on her brother's strong arms for the first time in... well, possibly ever. She'd had a chip on her shoulder about her independence when they were young. She'd had a chip on her shoulder about her independence for a long time, actually. One step up, two steps back, she thought, watching her mad mother giggle coquettishly as Derek tried to coax some kind of recognition out of her. No parents, husband, no husband, son, a husband again, no son, now maybe parents again, soon maybe a child again. What a roller coaster ride her damn life was. Khyrisse wished she could just keep something, anything. The constant losing and finding wore on her.
But at least it wasn't just losing, she reminded herself, watching her father stroke her mother's ragged hair. At least there was finding too. And at least this time, this defection, hadn't caused much collateral damage. When Eric betrayed her he and his damn Godmaker ring had followed her around
destroying everything she tried to care about for a decade. When Ariath had it had shattered a man she loved. Skitch had put a stake in her heart, but only in her heart. How long it would take Khyrisse to trust again she didn't know, but at least no one else had been hurt this time. At least the mafia had gotten the
sphere of wild magic back to her before Diaria could use it.
Khyrisse closed her eyes and breathed a rueful puff of a sigh, giving her grudging thanks for that much.
Don Alliejin watched his three sons leave the meeting room, keeping his pride in them quiet, unspoken, and obvious, as any good father would. He picked the small oval portrait of his blessed wife from his desk and looked into those enigmatic eyes he still missed sometimes in the night.
Don Alliejin was thankful for his family.
In the end, they were really all that mattered.
"Jack?" said Ebreth, trailing his feet in the dark water behind the fishing skiff as he finished the last of the sherry.
"Hmm?" The mathematician glanced up, startled out of whatever thought he'd been lost in. "What?"
"These months," said Ebreth. "That I've known you I mean. If it's really all you get. If there's really nothing we can do about it." He looked out at the reflection of Bane, shimmering over each swell in the Vadril. "I'm thankful for them," said Ebreth.